ELLSWORTH, Maine — It may have topped 80 degrees across much of Maine this week, but community agencies are already planning for how to meet the state’s heating-fuel assistance needs this winter.
State administrators of the federal Low Income Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, say funding for the program is expected to decrease this year. That combined with rising fuel prices, which have nearly doubled in Maine since 2004, and a continually stagnant economy will mean an increased gap between fuel needs and available help, the administrators say.
Maine received about $38 million in LIHEAP grants from the federal government in the last fiscal year, according to data posted on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website. With it, the Maine State Housing Authority and its partners helped 58,300 people heat their homes, with an average benefit of about $484.
That’s down significantly from the $51.4 million the state received in fiscal year 2011 and $52.3 million in fiscal year 2010, allocations that reflected additional funds from President Barack Obama’s stimulus package.
Obama’s proposed national LIHEAP budget for this fiscal year is down 13 percent, or about $452 million, according to Deb Turcotte, spokeswoman for the MSHA. It’s still unknown exactly what Maine’s grant allocation will be, but Turcotte said preliminary predictions put the state grant at about $33.5 million.
Sue Farley with the Washington Hancock Community Agency — one of the nine groups contracted by Maine State Housing Authority to administer LIHEAP funds — says increased heating costs have left some people scrambling.
“Over the course of the last three or four years, even if they got the same dollar amount for a benefit, they’ve actually gotten less fuel,” she said. Last year, her agency helped 6,000 households in the two county area, with an average benefit of about $536.
Cuts in funding the LIHEAP administering agencies also mean changes this year in how applicants will begin the process of receiving benefits, Farley said. In the past, needy households in Washington and Hancock counties have received letters from WHCA with appointment dates for applying. This year, families will need to call the agency to set up an appointment.
Farley is urging anyone who has received assistance in the past to call their local agency to set up appointments.
“We don’t want anybody sitting at home thinking they’ve got a letter coming,” she said.
Heating oil prices in Down East Maine averaged $3.49 per gallon as of Aug. 3, according to maineoil.com. The price hasn’t dropped this summer as much as it usually does, Farley said, leading her to believe prices will continue to climb as the cold months set in.
At Aroostook County Action Program, senior manager Susan Deschene said she hasn’t heard anything yet about how much funding the state will receive but residents are already calling in asking about when the agency will begin taking applications for LIHEAP.
But the federal voucher program is only one source of heating fuel assistance in Maine. Municipalities also offer general assistance for households that slip through the cracks of LIHEAP, who are either ineligible for the program or need additional help.
Some communities are building safety nets for their safety nets, establishing emergency funds for people who still need more help after applying for LIHEAP and general assistance.
Last year in Scarborough, the town teamed up with a local nonprofit agency, Project Grace, to offer additional heating help. In Ellsworth, the city has developed a “Fuel Discretionary Fund” for families who still need help after exhausting their other options.
“I created that fund because I was concerned that in the winter months there are a lot of people struggling to keep their heads above water,” said Ellsworth’s GA administrator, Tina Howes. “They’re working, they have children in school. Some of these people have two or three jobs and that’s why they don’t qualify. Their income is just over the threshold, and they’re still unable to keep oil in the house.”
In fiscal year 2012, Ellsworth’s GA program helped 31 families heat their homes, and an additional three families got help from the emergency fund. Howes said that number is low (66 families got help in fiscal year 2011) because of last year’s mild winter. She said she predicts the need for heating fuel assistance will continue to grow this winter.
Ellsworth and Scarborough’s programs are funded entirely by donation, as is an emergency program established by WHCA to support families who need extra help keeping the cold at bay.
WHCA, Ellsworth and Scarborough always are looking for additional donations to fund their emergency fuel programs. After all, they say, last year’s mild winter could be followed up by a blizzard-ridden cold snap this year.
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.